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Report calls for expanding some rec centers, privatizing or closing others

Above: Sign in front of the Barclay Recreation Center in north Baltimore, a facility which is considered obsolete by the Mayor’s Task Force.

Baltimore’s 55 municipal recreation centers are too old and poorly maintained to meet the needs of young people and require a wholesale transformation into fewer and bigger facilities, a report commissioned by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake says.

The Recreation Center Task Force calls for building three new rec centers and expanding 11 others to state-of-the-art community centers by 2015.

At the same time, the city is expected to spin off at least 28 centers to private groups, non-profits or other agencies – and to close a number of “obsolete” facilities.

The 2012 city budget reduces funding for Recreation and Parks by $518,747. By consolidating some rec centers and divesting or closing others, the task force estimates the city can save between $300,000 and $400,000 a year.

The release of the report comes days after the city Board of Estimates approved a plan by City Council President Young to solicit private businesses and individuals for donations to help restore youth programs cut in the latest city budget.

Report Not Released

The issue of privatizing some rec centers – and closing as many as 10 facilities, according to the city’s budget plan – is politically sensitive, especially in an election year.

For this reason, the task force report was not publicly released after it was presented to Mayor Rawlings-Blake last December 14, a source on the panel told The Brew.

On Friday the report was posted on the Recreation and Parks website. A separate report, titled “Recreation Task Force Implementation Plan,” was also posted on the website.

Both reports emphasize that city rec centers will remain open through this year. Changes in the system are currently slated to begin in January.

The reports cite plans, long in the works, to build three new rec centers, aided by state funds and a $12 million bond issue approved by city voters.

Groundbreaking for a 17,000-square-foot facility at Morrell Park in southwest Baltimore took place last month. The $4 million facility, to be completed in the fall of 2013, will include a gymnasium, exercise rooms, computer lab, activity rooms, kitchen and community meeting space.

A second facility, known as the Rita Church Recreation Center, will convert a dilapidated pavilion near Sinclair Lane in Clifton Park into a multipurpose room, game room, computer lab and craft room.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young attended the groundbreaking ceremony on July 13. A second phase, currently in design, will add 11,500 square feet to the pavilion and include a gymnasium.

A rec center is also planned at Cherry Hill next to the Stemmers Run Middle School. The facility will be between 15,000 and 20,000 square feet.

Map of Baltimore's 55 existing recreation centers. Those with red stars are free-standing centers, while the darker stars are centers located in schools. (Baltimore Dept. of Recreation and Parks)

Map of Baltimore's 55 existing recreation centers, which are heavily concentrated in poorer neighborhoods. (Baltimore Dept. of Recreation and Parks)

In addition to the three new rec centers, the task force recommends expanding 11 existing centers into “model” community centers and modernizing as many as 16 others.

Slated for expansion are four facilities in west Baltimore (Bentalou, Cahill, Edgewood-Lyndhurst and Robert C. Marshall), three in east Baltimore (Virginia Baker, Chick Webb and Madison Square), two in northeast (Herring Run and Northwood), one in northwest (C.C. Jackson) and one in Brooklyn (Farring-Baybrook).

These upgrades are estimated to cost $8.45 million based on $250 per square foot for 34,000 square feet of new space. Accompanying these changes will be somewhat longer operating hours, including Saturday hours.

Partnerships and Collaborations

This leaves at least 28 rec centers that will be transitioned into a new system of “partnerships and collaborations,” according to the task force.

As many as six centers have been targeted as “charter centers” to be run by private entities with limited city funding. The process of converting the centers is described as follows:

“Charter centers will be divided into two categories: tiers 1 and 2. The tiers are based on the center size, the partner capacity and level of city funding and department requirements for operation. The [recreation and parks] department will fund up to two tier 1 centers and up to four tier 2 centers annually at an amount up to $100,000 and $50,000 respectively. Funds will be provided on a one-for-one matching basis.”

Recreation and Parks says it will develop RFPs (Requests for Proposals) for the charter centers that will be open to community groups, non-profits and private organizations. The report does not identify what facilities may be converted.

In addition, as many as 25 rec centers will be divested by Recreation and Parks and spun off, where possible, to other entities. A major user is expected to be the public schools, which will incorporate the rec centers located in school wings for new classrooms or office space.

The task force acknowledges that there will be cases where rec centers will close because they have no private sponsors, and other cases where the centers may continue but are no longer focused on youth services.

The report calls on city schools to step in and to provide afterschool programs for children affected by the loss of rec centers.

The report describes the majority of the current rec buildings as obsolete. Some have less than 5,000 square feet of space – three times below the “best practices” recommended size – and the majority are between 30 and 50 years old.

An example is the Barclay Recreation Center at 300 E. 29th St. The  facility, attached to the Barclay Elementary School, was built in 1979 and is only 5,070 square feet. It has a small gym, computer room, games room and weight room. An outdoor playground is crammed into a small rear lot.

Task Force Met Five Times

Mayor Rawlings-Blake convened the 23-member task force last July. Among the members were community leaders, such as Bishop Douglass Miles of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), philanthropists like Scott Spencer of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and two City Councilmen, Edward Reisinger (10th) and Carl Stokes (12th).

The city's Barclay Recreation Center on East 29th St., behind the Barclay Elementary School playground.

The Barclay Recreation Center. (Photo by Fern Shen)

The group met five times last summer and fall before submitting its report to the mayor last December.

In January, the group met with Gregory Bayor, director of recreation and parks, and other city officials to discuss their recommendations and to agree on “model criteria” for rec centers.

The task force urged Bayor’s office to develop “report cards” to determine what rec centers are currently falling behind in staffing, services and physical repairs.

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